Rosalie mansion, which sits high on a Mississippi River bluff in Natchez, Mississippi, is one of the city’s most historic homes.
The Rosalie story begins in December 1820 when lumber mill owner and planter Peter Little purchased land along the Mississippi River bluff upon which to build his home. He paid $3,000 for twenty-two acres known as the “Old Fort.” Little named the estate Rosalie after Fort Rosalie, the fort that the French had established on that land in 1716. The house was completed in 1823 and lived in by Little and his wife, Eliza Lowe, until their deaths. She died in 1853 and he in December 1856.
Since Rosalie was built before the American Civil War, it is known as an antebellum structure. Antebellum is Latin for “before the war.” Its architecture is the classic style. The word “architecture” means the art or science of building. It can also mean a method or style of building. From architectural designs of the earliest man-made structures, such as ancient huts and tombs, to the towering skyscrapers of modern cities, architecture reflects the taste, craftsmanship, and technology of the time in which it was created. Architects, the designers of buildings, use the materials, tools, and skills available during their time to create a structure that not only creates a usable space in which to work or live, but a design that appeals to the society’s tastes and culture.
Thus, to study the architectural style of Rosalie, it is important to first understand the period in which the house was built. In 1820, early Natchez bustled with activity and was home to many wealthy people. The wealth, a product of the cotton plantation system, enabled the prosperous to live lavishly in grand, stylish homes. In the early 19th century, the newly formed United States had welcomed Mississippi as a state in 1817. Natchez served as the state capital until 1821. Even after the Mississippi Legislature relocated the state capital to Jackson, Natchez continued to grow and flourish. In 1822, Mississippian John Quitman, a young lawyer, wrote, “No part of the United States holds out better prospects for a young lawyer. . . .Cotton planting is the most lucrative business that can be followed. Some planters net $50,000.00 from a single crop.” This lucrative cotton industry was based on enslaved labor.
Architectural historians categorize styles of American architecture into different periods. The Rosalie mansion falls into the “Early Classical Revival” or “Federal” period. The popularity of this style is largely credited to the influence of the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, who was impressed by the clean lines, proportions, and symmetry of Greek and Roman designed buildings. Jefferson’s home in Virginia, Monticello, reflected those classical characteristics. Some key identifying features of Early Classical Revival style architecture are:
1. a façade dominated by an entry porch with four columns;
2. a semicircular or elliptical fanlight over a paneled entry door; and,
3. windows in symmetrical rows around a central door.
The front side of Rosalie shows all three of those features. The red brick structure has an impressive entry porch and columns, elliptical fanlights over both the first- and second-story front doors, and symmetrical, double-hung sash windows. When looking at Rosalie, one immediately notices the large, dominating triangular pediment supported by four white columns forming a grand entry portico reminiscent of Greek temples. In a city with many impressive mansions, Rosalie’s entrance is perhaps the most noteworthy. The Historic Natchez Foundation notes that the design of Rosalie’s portico, along with other architectural features, produced “the first complete form of the ‘grand mansion’ common to Natchez.”
Other notable architectural features of the front façade include the narrow windows called sidelights flanking the two pairs of eight-paneled doors. These elements not only add to the symmetry of the design, but allow extra light to enter the central hall when the doors are closed. The triangular pediment is accented by an elliptical window, fashionable for the time, that allows for extra ventilation and light in the attic. The pediment is also decorated with tooth-like “dentil moldings.” The hipped roof has a balustrade at its peak enclosing an area for rooftop observation, which one could reach by stairs in the attic.
The floor plan of the mansion is typical of houses built in its period with a central hall and rooms off to the sides. As one enters the Rosalie mansion, a wide hall continues to the back door. There are two parlors to the left and a library, dining room, and stairway to the right. The parlors were used for entertaining company and for special family occasions, while the library across the hall was less formal and was used like modern-day dens or family rooms. The formal dining room was where the family ate their meals, which were prepared and served by enslaved people.
This layout is repeated on the second floor for the four bedrooms. This design, with numerous windows and high ceilings, allowed for air circulation, a necessity before the days of modern air-conditioning. The house also has an attic and basement. The rear of the house, with its six columns that reach to two stories, is as impressive as its front. Behind Rosalie are the two-story brick kitchen and servants’s quarters and the smokehouse, the only two extant, or surviving, outbuildings on the Rosalie estate.
All of these features combine to create a livable design that has held its appeal through time. One of the most popular and loved mansions in Natchez today, there are many who have remarked on Rosalie's beauty throughout the years. During the American Civil War, Rosalie served as headquarters for Federal troops. The wife of Union General Walter Q. Gresham later wrote that Rosalie was “the handsomest of the residences” along the Natchez bluff. Modern home builders have developed houses in the fashion of Rosalie.
Traditionally, it is said that Peter Little’s brother-in-law, James Shyrach Griffin, was a well-known architect from Baltimore, Maryland, who moved to Natchez and designed Rosalie. Historians are working to find confirming documentation. While undoubtedly designed by a professional architect and built by professional tradesmen, enslaved labor almost assuredly played a role in the building of the mansion.
In 1858, two years after the death of Little, the Rosalie mansion was home to another family. According to courthouse records, Andrew Wilson and his wife, Ann Eliza Bowman, were given Rosalie as a gift from Ann Eliza’s brother, Elam Bowman. Bowman had purchased the property that January from the Commissioner of the Court. The Wilson descendants would live in Rosalie for 100 years, until the mid-1900s. In 1938, when the last granddaughters began to grow older, they decided to sell the estate to the Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR looked after the house and the granddaughters continued to live at Rosalie. Gradually the granddaughters sold their furnishings to the DAR to sustain themselves. The last Wilson descendant to live at Rosalie, Annie Rumble Marsh, died in 1958.
The earliest known floor plans of the Rosalie mansion and surviving outbuildings are those of the Historic American Buildings Survey. The 1936 documents made by government workers show details including measurements and construction materials.
The Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution continue to preserve Rosalie and its furnishings to look the way it did when the Wilsons lived there. It is open daily for tours. Visit its website at https://rosaliemansion.com/.
Cheryl Munyer Branyan, manager at Rosalie from 1994 to 1999, is now branch director, Historic Jefferson College, for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Gresham, Matilda. Life of Walter Quintin Gresham 1832-1895. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1919.
Jones, Katherine M. The Plantation South. New York: The BobbsMerrill Company, 1957.
Historic Natchez Foundation. Draft of Heritage Tourism Manual.1999.
Marsh, Annie Rumble. Recording made in the Rosalie Library. Rosalie Collection. March 1955
McAlester, Virginia and Lee. Great American Houses and Their Architectural Styles. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.
Natchez Metropolitan Planning Commission, Adams County Courthouse, Adams County Landmarks Inventory, City Tax Map 60 Lot 30, Block 1, Rosalie, Broadway and Orleans.
Wood, Lucianne and Sarah Webster Harrison. Rosalie: A Mansion of Natchez. Natchez: Myrtle Bank Publishers, 1978.